magical realism · Marilyn Monroe · fantasy · Hollywood · alternative reality
“Absolutely riveting.” —Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey, New York Times bestselling author of A Woman of Independent Means
How many lives does Jack have to blow before getting it right? And is sleeping with Marilyn Monroe worth getting murdered again?
When Jack Cade is fired from a no-pay production of Hamlet, he has no inkling his next role will be opposite Marilyn Monroe—forty years back in time, in 1956. As a down-and-out aging actor, Jack’s luck and life change when he’s anonymously sent a pawn ticket for an alexandrite ring. After his wife leaves him, a mysterious woman asks him to meet her at an old mansion deep in the San Fernando Valley. With nothing to lose, Jack decides to go. Once he steps through her door, he enters a world of beguiling physics and plain old magic to travel through time. Through a dark, glitzy whirlwind of events, Jack meets Marilyn, gets killed more than once, and emerges with the jewel that changes his destiny. He discovers the answers to all his life-and-death questions within the constantly shifting colors of the alexandrite.
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Chanticleer Somerset Award Grand Prize Winner for Literary and Contemporary Fiction
Reader Views Awards Best Fantasy
“Lenz’s mesmerizing, multifaceted debut novel is both an intriguing time-travel/past-life adventure and a subtle homage to Marilyn Monroe.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review, one of the Best Books of The Year
“Rich…thought-provoking…A terrific page-turner.” —US Review of Books
“It's just about impossible to put down.” —Bret Easton Ellis, New York Times bestselling author and screenwriter
“Compelling…fascinating…Shades of Groundhog Day and It’s a Wonderful Life…” —Foreword Reviews
“So what makes this diversion into another Rick Lenz winner? Simple. It is his magnetic style of writing, prose that approaches poetry on nearly every page, a story that utilizes Rick’s Hollywood connection, and the fact that, as in North of Hollywood, the people he creates (or celebrates...) are so well sculpted that should we pass them on the street we would immediately recognize them. That is a talent in which Rick basks.” —Grady Harp, San Francisco Review of Books
“I was particularly struck by how masterfully the author captured Marilyn Monroe. It’s no easy task to capture such an iconic figure who is now so heavily and elusively cloaked in myth, but I thought Rick Lenz portrayed her so well that I wondered if he’d actually met her.” —Martin Turnbull, author of The Garden of Allah novels
“…this fascinating look at the underbelly offers an intriguing glimpse into Monroe's tragic life and death. Like Monroe, the novel is impressively complex. Lenz—himself a veteran actor—cunningly blends time travel, LA noir, Hollywood glitz and self-discovery, making for a uniquely appealing read. A stellar story illuminated by a star's light and a man's search for himself.” —Kirkus Reviews
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lenz wrote stage plays that have been produced off-Broadway and on PBS. His first book, “North of Hollywood,” won a Foreword Book of the Year Award and was the first-place memoir in The Los Angeles Book Festival Awards. “The Alexandrite” won the Grand Prize in the Chanticleer Somerset Award for literary and contemporary fiction. It was also named Best Fantasy in the Reader Views Awards. It was named “One of the Best Books of The Year” by Kirkus Reviews and NY Times best-selling author, Bret Easton Ellis called it “Almost impossible to put down.”
When Lenz retired as a stage and film actor (playing opposite Ingrid Bergman, John Wayne, Lauren Bacall, Walter Matthau, Peter Sellers among others), his passion for drama refused to retire with him.
“I became a full-time writer because I loved doing it. It took me a long time to believe I had something to say. Now that it feels as if I do, I want to say it. I wake up every morning, wash my grogginess away with coffee, pick up in my story where I left off, and feel a wonderful sense of accomplishment when it comes out right. I love creating mysteries, then solving them. The more I write, the more it comes out right. I feel like a gambler on a lucky streak and I thank Heaven for it.”
SAMPLE FROM THE ALEXANDRITE
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 8, 1996
At some unidentified point during the first time I live through the following events, it becomes as clear as my muddled brain has ever experienced clarity that most of us do not see what we see or hear what we hear; in fact, we can’t tell what’s going on right in front of us. As a result, few of us understand that life runs in a circle, that it’s forever changing, but always, always in a circle. And the reason for this is, if it wasn’t in a circle, if life went out in a straight line, it would take us away from each other. And that wouldn’t work because we are all connected, made of the same stuff. Most of us, to one degree or another, are terrified of the end of the path we’re on, never understanding that our path is a circle, and that it won’t end—because it can’t.
Curiously—or at least I think it’s curious—what I have just said is something I’ve yet to learn, yet I already know it.
I know this is an odd way to start a story like this—if there is another story like this—but I am experiencing a lot of odd moments lately, and am having a new and alarming sensation of the (forgive me, psychobabble haters) Now in my life. Everything that happens to me is happening as it occurs—not a few minutes ago, not yesterday, not last year, but now.
My name is Jack Cade. I’m a forty-year-old actor, and going through a rough patch in my work life. My marriage is not doing well either, which is entirely my fault. Sophie is the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me.
Also, if I want to be totally honest (and what’s the point of writing a journal if you don’t plan to be honest), my career is in the process of falling to pieces.
WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 9, 1996
I go to an audition today—four lines for a cable television movie. It’s for one of those TV characters who knows what he knows with absurd confidence. When I get to the casting studio, I feel pins and needles up and down my spine, and my stomach is dripping acid as if I’ve just taken part in a black-coffee-drinking contest. There are four other actors who look just like me but confident waiting in the outer office. On the walls hang photographs of Cagney, Garbo, Rita Hayworth, Henry Fonda, Bette Davis, and as always in my life, it seems wherever I go, Marilyn Monroe.
Inside, I jump all my cues, reading the answers before the character I’m auditioning for has a chance to hear the questions. By then, perspiration is causing my shirt to stick to my chest and back, and it’s clear the producers are not about to hire an actor whose clothing is pasted to him, who looks like he’s just run a marathon and is about to, as the first marathoner did, drop dead.
The producers, who seem knowing and sophisticated beyond their years in their super casual clothes and three-hundred-dollar haircuts, are disappointed. Who can blame them? They ask for devil-may-care and wised-up—kind of like they are—but I don’t have that on my menu today. I have worried. I have unsure. I have bleeding actor’s ego. Almost immediately, I notice that these foolishly confident TV guys are all wearing Rolexes, except for the doughty TV gal, who sports a large Mickey Mouse watch. I’m wearing a Timex that stopped working last year.
My mother, Rita, looms up in my mind like Gypsy Rose Lee’s mama. She looks disappointed in me. I hate that look.
Passing through the outer office as I leave the audition, I glance at the picture of Spencer Tracy on the wall and wonder if there is anything generous, anything un-ego-bound behind his eyes, anything that, even with the ultimate actor and movie star, one could hang onto that isn’t just part of “The Spencer Tracy Show.”
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 10, 1996
I didn’t sleep much last night. I’ve been having a recurring nightmare that I’m in a darkened hallway, standing at the top of a flight of stairs, trying to work up the guts to go down to the first floor. I’m terrified to start down, but there’s a relentless pounding in my brain, and it leaves me no choice. I can see light at the bottom of the stairs coming through a short passageway from the next room.
I’m gripped constantly by two fears: that I am a perverse exception to the larger circle of life I sense in my gut that my life is running in a grinding and infinite loop with no means of changing its course; and that the only way I can possibly escape is to jump from the frying pan into the fire—leap free of the rut I’m stuck in and walk through that passageway into, for all I know, something even more sinister.
I wake up in a cold sweat just before I have to start down the stairs. I’m up for hours sometimes before I’m able to fall back into an uneasy sleep, but Sophie sleeps heavily. She gets up early and goes to work as a private care nurse at the Beverly Vue Apartments for a gentleman she calls “the old boy.” Except for the times I gaze at her as I’m falling asleep, I hardly ever see her lately except in the evenings, and not always then.
Today, the telephone wakes me. It’s the director of a play I’ve been working on, a five-character Hamlet at a tiny nonpaying workshop theatre in West Hollywood. I’m playing Polonius and alternating with the other supporting actors to do the narration. When you do a five-character Hamlet, a lot of things need to be explained.
An actor in his late thirties named Douglas Crossley is playing Hamlet. He is also directing. I was told Crossley almost became a star several years ago, having done nice roles in four big films when he was a young man, but evidently he didn’t quite click, because after that he was once again, like most actors, struggling to get by. He’s counting on this production to finally do it for him. I have my doubts.
On the telephone, Crossley says, “Hey, listen, Jack, rehearsal’s canceled today. I’m making a couple of cuts. We’re running too long.”
“Oh, yeah? What are you cutting?”
“Nothing of yours. I’ll see you tomorrow. Three o’clock.”
I hang up, trying to ignore my usual paranoia at such moments. I turn my electric clock toward me and see that it’s five, which is impossible in either direction—the sun is high in the sky. It has to be a Department of Water and Power problem. The people in the San Fernando Valley lose power quite often. It gets too hot, or it floods, or fires sweep through driven by Santa Ana winds which, even if there’s nothing burning, can do plenty of damage, blowing down trees and high-tension lines and tossing huge truck trailers off roads. Sometimes the power sources seem to collapse for no reason at all.
It was windy last night. The Santa Anas have sucked the heat out of the desert and pushed it across the Valley and the LA basin to the sea. Tree branches are strewn across all the yards in our neighborhood and on the street in front of our house. I call up the automated time lady on the telephone (a decades-long sacrament) and reset my clock to 11:45, feeling depressed that so much of the day is already gone.
Looking out the front window, I hardly notice the pretty postal carrier as she drops my mail in the letterbox and moves off to the bungalow next door. Sipping my coffee, I open an envelope that has no return address. Inside is a pawn ticket. I have no idea what it’s about, and for a fraction of a second, I feel an eruption of déjà vu—a volcano locked up inside me with no vent for its energy, no way for it to identify and explain itself to me. I look at the ticket again, grateful for something to take my mind off my nightmare and show business.
I dress, get into my sun-faded, pale green 1984 Jaguar convertible, and drive the Hollywood Freeway from the San Fernando Valley into the central megalopolitan ooze of Los Angeles. Exiting on Vermont, I make my way to Morgan’s Gifts on a seedy part of Oxford Street in the Wilshire District.
The inside of the pawn shop looks like it’s been put together by a Hollywood scenic designer, from the careful layer of dust on the long file of guitars to the shiny, age-worn wooden counter outside the cage and a bad acrylic painting (there she is again) of Marilyn Monroe visible through the front window.
I’ve never been able to fully account for what feels like my lifelong connection with Marilyn. Staring at this crude rendering now, I know it isn’t a sexual fixation I have on her. Okay, a little sexual, but mostly it’s romantic, something like the sentimental feelings I had toward the girl I gave a bottle of perfume to in the seventh grade. The girl was a beautiful, delicate waif with a sad smile and a look in her eyes that transfigured my awakening teenage passions into something between fascination and obsession. I picked her name in the class drawing for an exchange of Christmas gifts and bought her a bottle of Shalimar that cost me every penny I had. When she thanked me for it, I know I turned crimson; I was unable to say a word to her. It felt like a triumph anyway; I knew from the way she smiled at me that she understood the magnitude of my gift.
On the second of January, the day after Christmas vacation ended, my father died.
Rita sold the house and we moved from Jackson, Michigan, to Los Angeles where, if Rita had her way, I would one day become a movie star. I have no idea what caused her to hatch this notion. Madness is my guess.
But this waif, Marilyn, goes on and on in the back of my mind, always there, as needful of something in me as I am of whatever it is in her. It’s as if we have a subcutaneous interdependence, despite the fact that she departed the world almost thirty-five years ago. There’s something upsetting about the artlessness of this depiction of her. It’s as garish as any paint-by-number piece, but without the saving grace of guilelessness. This artist thought he knew what he was doing, but he had no clue.
The only thing to distinguish Morgan’s Gifts from most other pawnbrokers is a tiny but stoutish woman with a hairline about as high as the first Queen Elizabeth’s after she’d had smallpox. She has a pinkish complexion and is fast asleep in a chintz-covered wing chair near the front window. A strip of midday sunlight creeps up her shins toward her pudgy knees and she breathes evenly through her mouth.
I gaze at her for several seconds and am startled when she abruptly opens her eyes and catches me at it. I look away quickly, as if I’m browsing the shop. By the time I glance back, her eyes are closed again.
Afraid to wake her—if she actually is asleep—I don’t ring the bell at the cage. I whisper hello a couple of times.
A loose-jointed young man with no hair on the sides of his oblong head unfolds himself into position inside the cage.
I hand him the ticket. He frowns at it, looks at me, sniffs, then hitches himself around the corner, where I hear him rustling through layers of other people’s lives.
He reappears holding a small brown velvet jewelry box. “Here ya go.” He pushes it out to me.
“How much do I owe you?”
“Been paid for.”
“Don’t know. You’d have to ask Mrs. Hightower.” He points at the woman in the wing chair.
I look at her, wondering if she’s overheard us, but her eyes are still closed and she’s again breathing rhythmically through her mouth.
“Was it paid by check?”
The young man shrugs.
“Do you know when it was paid?”
“Dunno.” He turns up the palms of his hands.
I thank him and start to leave.
“Hey, you got to look at what’s in there before you take it.”
“Oh, sorry.” I snap open the box.
It is an antique-looking ring with a roundish, faceted stone, murky purplish in color. “It’s a ring.” I move back to the window and hold it out. “Is this an amethyst?”
He takes it from me, gives it a perfunctory inspection, then hands it back. “Could be.” He shrugs and disappears into the rear of the shop the way he came.
I stuff the ring in its box into a front jeans pocket and, with another glance at the plump little woman, go back out onto Oxford Street.
When the box starts hurting my leg on the freeway as I’m driving home, I wiggle it out of the pocket and open it up with my left hand. At first I think the kid has played some trick on me. It’s a different ring. The stone is now a bright bluish-green, clear, with almost the fire of a diamond. But it’s the same ring. The kid only held it for a moment then gave it back to me. I try it on the ring finger of my right hand.
It fits as if it’s been sized for me.
Later, at our little house in North Hollywood, Sophie gets home from work in Beverly Hills and finds me asleep under the influence of about half of a family-size bottle of Deer Valley Chardonnay. I complain about what’s going on—or not going on—in my work life. She listens as much as she’s able to as I enlighten her about the ways in which reality television, already scourging through the European market, is about to start robbing me of my living, et cetera, et cetera. I quote some dire warnings from Variety and the Hollywood Reporter.
I look at her out of the corner of my eye and see she’s under some kind of stress of her own. Sophie is pretty, open, and unguarded; so unguarded that I can tell now that something is definitely bothering her. She can be brusque and sometimes, frankly, a little cold, and she picks now, when I’m feeling shitty like this, as one of those times.
To be fair, she isn’t usually cold or brusque. I met her at a lecture on “Taking Care of the Elderly after a Hip Fracture” at UCLA. My mother had broken her hip and I wanted to know how to take care of her. (It turned out her fall had been a freak thing. Rita has bones as hard as Bakelite, and nothing like that ever happened to her again.) After the lecture, Sophie and I struck up a conversation, and she invited me over for coffee. She didn’t say, “Let’s go out and have coffee.” She invited me to her apartment. I couldn’t believe this knockout girl was being so forward. (I’m not saying I minded.) I accepted her invitation, went over to her place, and we talked until dawn. We didn’t mess around or anything. That came the next time. After that, we messed around a lot.
Just short of two months later, we got married.
I have my nightmare again and shudder awake, terrified as always. Sophie is asleep next to me. I know if I wake her up to tell her about it, she will do her best to comfort me, but I also know that won’t fix anything.
Looking at her, I think about getting up and maybe reading a little until I get drowsy again. But her face is so beautiful—not in the usual way, but confiding, in her sleep, a heartbreaking vulnerability. I have a badly timed urge to nestle into her, burrow into that place on the pillow next to where she’s adrift in whatever dream world she’s in. I want to inhale her, get lost in her, be as close as I can, not from the fear of my nightmare anymore, but from this fanatical tenderness that multiplies in me watching her sleep. I think of the Leonard Cohen lyric, “Your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm.” I want to enter into her storm and keep her warm and safe.
A while later, I remember the ring. I had taken it off and put it in the pocket of my windbreaker. I slip out of bed and go out to the front closet to get it out. I sit down on the sofa, turn on a lamp, open the box and take it out. I hold it closer to the light. The stone is a deep raspberry red.
I wonder what whoever left it for me wants.
I look into the deep red and feel the same sense of dread I feel in my nightmare. But this is concrete. It’s a thing. I’m holding it in my hand, which takes it out of the realm of fantasy; this is real.